A retired Professor of French wrote the following letter (published in The Guardian, February 13, 2011)
Andrew Hussey’s piece “French is too important to be left to middle-class Francophiles” (Comment) articulates very clearly the problems being faced by UK university French departments. He could have made similar claims regarding the teaching of the other “big languages” of Europe, notably German, but an essential point, which he does not make, is that the language choices a community makes are, ultimately, political choices. They are not ideologically neutral. Opting out of European languages implies that, as a group, we do not wish to relate meaningfully to the speakers of these languages and that we do not believe that they have anything to teach us.
While our European neighbours are led to broaden their world views through learning English, we choose to narrow our horizons, in the belief that sourcing all our ideas in a single place will lead to intellectual creativity, economic regeneration and cultural autonomy. The UK universities could transform the situation by reinserting into their minimum entrance requirements the language qualification they abandoned a generation ago. They are alone in Europe in not making such a requirement.
Anthony Lodge, emeritus professor of French language and linguistics,
University of St Andrews
Here is Hussey’s article, “French is too important to be left to middle-class Francophiles”:
Within a few years, the study of French at UK universities, already severely endangered, may well become extinct. The reasons for this are various and complex, including the idea that anyone interesting speaks English anyway. But the fact is that university applications are in an apparently unstoppable downward spiral and French departments are under threat. What is worse is that this depressing situation – depressing at least for those who teach French in universities – has been met by the government and the public with a resounding: “So what?”
To some extent, this is understandable. In a grim economic climate, why should anyone really care about the plight of a discipline which is usually perceived to be posh, elitist and pointless? The cause is not helped by the generally perceived notion that French literature these days, a bit like French cinema, is mainly pretentious tosh – incomprehensible when it is not simply boring. Indeed, the prevailing consensus seems to be a not-too-faint echo of the classic Britpop statement from Jarvis Cocker (who is himself a long-time Paris resident): “You can take your Year in Provence and shove it up your arse!”
Actually, Jarvis is making a serious point and I agree with him. In essence, my view is that the study of French in the UK is far too important to be left to a middle-class, Francophile elite. I say this as someone who has been working as an academic in French studies for more than 20 years and always hated the fantasy version of France and, in particular, the image of snooty tourists sipping pastis in the Dordogne.
My experience of France couldn’t be more different. I come from a working-class background in Liverpool and I first went to Paris in the 1980s to buy records, mainly rai music, Afrobeat, rare stuff you couldn’t get at home. I fell in love immediately with the area of Barbès, the tough immigrant district in the north-east of the city. I also fell in love with writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Emile Zola, who documented the rough edges of Paris.
This first visit was also the starting point of a fascination with the North African culture of Paris. I went back to England, did a first degree, a PhD and eventually became a professor of French. Why is that important? Well, because, at least in the classical sense, I’m not a Francophile at all (in some ways quite the opposite – for one thing, the longer I live in Paris the more I find that Parisians really do live up to their reputation as the most irritating people in the world).
The really interesting part of my job is to interpret the French-speaking world, which is partly in Paris in microcosm, but also much bigger than France. It is this work that, in recent years, has taken me from Bucharest to Algiers to Montreal.
What studying French has really done for me is to provide me with a new mental landscape. French writing, from Voltaire to Sartre to Houellebecq, has a hard, confrontational edge to it, driven by big ideas, which does not exist in the same way in the English-speaking world. This is why French literature has appealed to English writers of a certain “outsider” stripe, from George Orwell to Will Self. This is a political phenomenon as much as anything else. For a working-class intellectual (which was how I rather cockily fancied myself as a student) to speak and understand French is to short-circuit many of the stupidities of class prejudice in the UK.
In the 21st century, it is equally significant that in London, Berlin or Rome, French-speaking members of the Middle Eastern or African diasporas are, as I write, forging a new relation with Europe and “European-ness” through the French language they have made their own. Interestingly, this is all happening outside official French culture.
One of the present generation of UK academics who is leading the charge against “Francophilia” in French studies is Charles Forsdick, who is the current James Barrow professor of French at Liverpool University. In a recent article on the doomed future of French studies, Forsdick acidly remarked that in the past French departments had usually been staffed by French nationals and that their “persistent Francophilia often tended to obstruct the distance of ethnographic objectivity on which modern languages should ideally be based”.
In other words, we cannot rely on the French or their admirers to tell us what French culture is. More to the point, the role of UK French studies is not to promote France or Frenchness, but to help us understand how (or if) the French-speaking world works.
That said, it still needs to be made fit for purpose in the 21st century. Part of that job is to think of French as a world language and not the preserve of braying Brit holidaymakers. Writing in French, from Morocco to Senegal to Quebec, has much to teach us in Britain about the hyper-complexity of the postcolonial world; for this reason, it should be read by all classes, all races, and not just those who are lucky enough to go to an expensive school.
For the past five years, I’ve been based in Paris as dean of the University of London in Paris (ULIP). Here, we teach students from all backgrounds a degree in French. What is most exciting about this project is the way in which these students discover a new world – politics, art, history, philosophy – via Paris. And that, too, is what French studies in the UK is all about. That is why academics in the French studies community should be self-confident and even combative about their future.
To let French studies go the way of classics – a museum piece for specialists – would not only be an act of cultural vandalism, but also a direct attack on the premise of social mobility in Britain. All young people in the UK have the right to access the world beyond the Anglosphere. For all the reasons stated above, French is one of the best ways into that zone. And that is more than enough reason why – and this is where I really am speaking the same language as Jarvis – we can’t let French studies be hijacked or abolished by those who like France too much.